There was commotion inside a clothing shop on Broadway. A woman could be heard shouting and a man rushed out. He stopped in his tracks and looked around in confusion. “Where the hell am I?—Excuse me, can you tell me what city we’re in?” he asked a pedestrian.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What city is this?”
“You don’t know?”
“Those apartment blocks weren’t there a few minutes ago.”
The passerby rolled his eyes and moved on. “Try that bar over there,” he said with a backward glance at the strange man. “Or you just come from there?”
The man crossed the street. The bar was named the “Bar” in cursive neon in a small window next to an industrial door. He entered the dark interior and sat down at the counter. The bartender, a rugged man in a cowboy outfit, swiveled his face past the stranger and reversed direction to meet him in the eye. “What’ll you have, buddy?”
“What do you got?”
“Budweiser and Miller High Life.”
“That’s it? The Mexicans used to drink that High Life shit. You don’t even have Miller Lite? Reminds me of the ’80s. No Old Style either? How about Augsburger? Leinenkugel’s?”
The bartender looked at him quizzically.
“How much for a beer?”
“Forty fucking dollars?” The stranger looked in his wallet and replaced it in his pants without removing any money. “Can I just wait a minute before I order something? I feel dizzy.”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
The stranger took in the interior. Pool table, linoleum floor, neon beer logos, fake wood paneling, stamped metal ceiling, ceiling fans. He got off his stool and walked over to a pair of saloon-style doors at the back of the bar. Beyond was a hallway obscured by steam. “What’s in there?”
“A sauna in a bar?”
Pointing to an event advertised on a placard, the stranger then asked, “What exactly is an ‘underparty’?”
“You don’t know?”
“Well, I could guess.”
“You’re not from around here I can see.”
“Whereabouts are you from?”
“Chicago. Isn’t this Chicago?”
“No, it’s New Gary.”
“You mean Gary, Indiana?”
“That’s the old name.”
“I didn’t know they changed it. When did they change it?”
“Not sure. That was before my time. There’s a tourist center over on Polk Street. I’m sure they can answer your questions. Let me take you there. It’s just a few blocks away.”
“You’re going to leave your bar unattended?”
“I’ll cover for him,” said another man who had pushed through the swinging doors. He was tall and dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, thumbs hooked in his pockets as he gazed at a point beyond the stranger.
“Thank you, Ishmael.”
“My pleasure, Algernon.”
They exited the bar and headed down West 5th Avenue.
“As in Ishmael from Moby Dick?” said the stranger. “And you’re from Flowers for Algernon? You know, the character who becomes really smart and then stupid again?”
“It’s a nickname everyone started using with me and it stuck.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Algernon. I’m Jeff Malmquist.”
“Nice to meet you too. Are you planning on staying long in New Gary?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Several blocks later Malmquist said, “Where is this tourist center, exactly? Seems a bit strange it would be on a residential street rather than back over there on the main drag.”
“It’s just up ahead.”
On Polk Street they turned the corner and Malmquist found himself in front of the New Gary Police Department. “The tourist center doubles up here,” said Algernon.
He escorted Malmquist up the steps and into the lobby where they were buzzed through a steel door, and deposited him before an officer at a desk before walking out.
Malmquist pointed at Algernon and said, “He’s undercover?”
“I’m Sergeant Fink, by the way. Well, let’s start by you telling me who you are and how you got here.”
“Across the Zone.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Why don’t you tell me how I got here.”
“Jeffrey Malmquist. ”
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I really have no idea. I was teaching a class at my university and suddenly I found myself in Gary, Indiana.”
“What were you teaching?”
“The science of signs.”
“Like street signs, shop signs?”
“Yeah, it includes that.”
“How to make signs? They teach that in university?”
“How to understand signs.”
“But you call it semiautomatics.”
Fink scratched his head. “Looks like we need to process you, Malmquist. Born in Chicago. Date of birth?”
“October 31, 1960.”
“1960.” He scratched his head again. “Identification?”
Malmquist pulled out his driver’s license.
“1960, all right. Doesn’t jive.”
Fink slammed his fist on the desk. “Because that would make you one hundred years old! What’s with the antique ID? And why aren’t you readable?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Put him in the pen till we figure out what to do with him,” he told Algernon, who had returned and was now in uniform.
Strip-searched and fingerprinted, Malmquist was led to a bull pen containing several other prisoners.
“Here you go, Leroy. He’s an odd one,” said Algernon, passing him to the guard.
“Where the hell did you come from?” said one of the prisoners.
“What’s the goofy message mean?” said another, pointing to Malmquist’s T-shirt.
Malmquist looked down at his shirt and back up.
“He’s a professor. He teaches how to make shop signs for selling semiautomatic weapons.”
“All right, fine. Semiautomatics,” said Malmquist.
“What did you get picked up for?” said another.
“I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t even know how I got here. I also just discovered it’s 2060. Tell me it’s October 1, 2015.”
“You got the day right, but not the year.”
“All right. Please excuse me while I cover my ears to keep my brains from spilling out.”
“Man, you a trip,” said Leroy. “You musta taken some heavy shit.”
“Maybe he has amnesia.”
“No, I don’t have amnesia. I’m in some kind of time warp. Are you dudes the only prisoners? And what’s with that cop called Algernon, anyway? Is he ever weird. He has this super smooth way of moving his neck when he talks.”
“All droids like that.”
“Yeah, droids. Androids.”
“He’s a robot?”
One of the prisoners laughed. “You think he human? You stranger than him.”
“He had me fooled. But this police station doesn’t seem right. It’s so informal. Only two cops. Like a town jail in the Wild West with a sheriff and his sidekick deputy.”
“Crime rate low. One hundred percent employment, twelve-hour shifts. Nobody have the time or energy to get arrested.”
“What are you guys here for, then?”
“Late getting back to work after our break. And for having an attitude.”
“They put you in jail for that? Are there other androids besides Algernon? How can he watch over everyone?”
“We all monitored by our chip.”
“Where do they embed it?”
“In your brain.”
“Oh, God. I’m stuck in a bad sci-fi movie. You mean they control your every thought?”
“No, it just an ID chip. They put it there to keep track of you, know where you are. And make it very difficult to remove the chip should you ever try to do so.” Leroy returned to his conversation with the inmates through the jail bars. “So as I was saying, I was ridin’ Delilah, see, and she pounding into me bam, bam, bam, so hard she like a machine, man. I’m thinking, maybe she one of them female droids I heard about but never seen. So I turn her over to examine her more closely—”
“Well, Malmquist, we’re releasing you,” said Algernon, who had re-emerged. “We think you have amnesia and got lost after crossing over from Chicago. Here’s your gun. Leroy, would you take him to the Zone and see that he gets back across?”
“I don’t understand,” said Malmquist.
“You won’t get too far in Chicago with no gun,” said Leroy.
They laughed at him. “See I told you he has amnesia. It’s the law to carry a gun. As long as you not from New Gary, that is.”
“We had to scrounge around to find an extra one, since you appear to have lost yours,” said Algernon. “We would sell it to you but that money in your wallet is play money.”
“How do I put this on?” Malmquist fumbled with the gun’s sling as Leroy led him out.
“Interrupted again!” said one of the prisoners. “Don’t you forget to finish your story when you get back, Leroy, you hear?”
They got into a beat-up old vehicle shaped like an almond. It extended its wings and headed west in the air down 5th Avenue.
“Holy shit! This thing can fly? Where are we going?”
“To the Zone, to get you out.”
They flew just above the treetops and no faster than the cars on the ground.
“I’ve never held a gun before in my life, let alone shot one. I don’t know how to use this. Will you please tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“Whatever happened to you, your head got wiped clean as a ho’s sandpapered ass. Now listen up. We got another four mile to go before we get to the Zone. When we get there, you gonna hear a lot of guns being fired at the Coliseum. That’s when I’m gonna dump you off and you gotta cross over yourself without getting shot. Once you on the other side of 912, you safe.”
“What’s 912? What’s the Zone? And what the hell is the Coliseum?”
“Highway 912 that’s where New Gary ends. Hammond on the other side. You see all them thirty-story residential buildings stretching down this way? The buildings face Hammond from the cloverleaf where we’re headed down south to I-80, that’s over one mile of residential buildings. The Coliseum. You got thousands of freakos from Chicago and Hammond lined up on the near side of 912 with they AK’s be trying to pick us off. You’ll see sandbags ringed around the towers to protect the residents trying to get back home safe. You gonna slip out around them sandbags and into view. As you do this, you run backwards pretending you shooting at us, and work your way up to the barbed-wire fence and find one of them holes to stick yourself through and out the other side.”
“Let me get this straight. I have to throw myself at hundreds of gunmen while running backwards and shooting at you?”
“No, not at me. I be long gone before you get to the front lines. It might get a little hairy at first, but their sensors don’t pick up no chip on you, they’ll know you one of them and ain’t no pedo.”
“What’s a pedo?”
“Shit. I got to explain everything to you. As in pedophile. Child molester. When they got you in their sights, your chip is pinged by a laser and your mugshot and stats pop right up in their viewfinder. Everything about you, where you originally from, what particular offense you nabbed for, what danger level you considered to be. But since you ain’t pedo they can’t ping you. And plus they’ll see your gun. New Gary people ain’t allowed to carry no gun.”
“I am not a pedophile.”
“As long as you in New Gary, you pedo. As soon as you outta Gary, you no longer pedo.”
“I have never committed any sexual offense against children or anyone else.”
“It’s not what you done or haven’t done, man. It’s what they got on you.”
“Everyone in Gary is a convicted pedophile? Including you too?”
“You bet. All one million of us.”
“One million! The only thing I remember about Gary is it was a ghost city. Hardly anyone lived there. They used to use the place as a set for horror films.”
“All them houses of old Gary torn down long ago. Actually I heard they got another million coming down the pipeline. They building more housing but can’t keep up with the conviction rate. That’s why all these new bastards gotta do their time in the Coliseum. Ain’t nowhere else to put them. They all on a waiting list to get into safe housing. Until then they the sacrificial lambs being fed to the lions.”
“Wait a minute. Chicago only has about three million people. If we don’t count children and teenagers, that would leave some two million adults, wouldn’t it? You’re telling me half the population are pedophiles? No way. That can’t be.”
“They got people here from the suburbs and surrounding areas too. Ain’t just Chicago city where they find them. New Gary is the regional incarceration center for the upper Midwest. They got New Gary’s all over the country.”
“We used to sweep pedophiles under highway overpasses to get them out of the way. So Gary is one big highway overpass? I still can’t understand how there could be so many pedophiles.”
“The more technology advances, the more pedos they able to find. They got all kinda ways to find you.”
“If there’s a million pedophiles here and another million on the way, how can that shabby little police station handle them all?”
“They all processed in Chicago, then transferred here by the military over on I-90. This station only for local incidents.”
“How did you wind up here?”
“Kiddie porn I never even knew I had. They proved I paid for it and presented the court with evidence of my financial transactions. All put there by hackers. The money came right out of my bank account. I had no idea.”
“So innocent people have been convicted?”
“Listen man, nobody completely innocent. They also nailed me for porn I was knowingly in possession of but didn’t know was underage. And there was the underage droid porn I knew was underage. And then there was the porn I had of legal age until they raised the legal age. But yes, you’re right, there’s a conspiracy out there. Heard the Russians heavily involved with they hacking expertise.”
“Why are we being shot at?”
“It’s a war, man. Those are the front lines.”
“It seems a pretty unfair war, when they have all the guns.”
“They say it’s preemptive. They gotta keep us at bay or else a tidal wave of pedos will deluge Chicago and devastate their communities. But they pretty aggressive, already chewed up the front row of buildings facing Hammond with them M2 50-caliber machine guns. Turned reinforce concrete into cottage cheese. Lots of us were killed and the buildings rendered uninhabitable.”
“Machine guns are legal?”
“Oh, yes. Anti-aircraft guns. Built right into these aircars. They flew all around the Zone. Legal or not don’t matter nohow. Any weapons legal when they unloaded on pedos. The law over there look the other way. But they realized if the buildings are uninhabitable there ain’t no more pedos to kill. I mean, first they took out all the windows. How can the residents board them up without getting shot at? If there ain’t no windows, how can they survive the winter? They all left and doubled up with friends elsewhere in the city, which is illegal since place of residence is strictly controlled. But they ain’t got no choice.”
“You can’t treat people like that.”
“They did and it was brutal. The aircars and heavy guns finally got banned for use against us and only lighter arms allowed. Since the first row of buildings was put out of commission, they now attacking the second row, which they can only hit at an angle. The greater distance makes for more challenging target practice, though most freakos don’t have the marksmanship to hit targets 200 yards away. They just spray bullets everywhere. Some started cutting holes in the fence to sneak in and shoot at closer range. But because of them holes—the same holes you gonna escape out of—they see a new danger of us pedos getting out. So they always be calling up more reserves to come out here and protect Chicago.”
“Not sure I follow this logic.”
“This logic’s gonna help you get out safe. They’ll just regard you as one of them more firing his way back.”
“If I’m on their side, why are you being so nice to me?”
“I don’t know. Something about you seems different. Innocent. Maybe you is from another time and place. Now here we are, two blocks away. You hear the roar of them guns? And see those sandbags and that little entrance? Don’t you go in there but continue on down the street. When you get to the next block you gonna be in firing range. That’s when you turn around and start shooting at the building.” Leroy landed the car. “Good luck.”
“Wait. I really don’t know how to use this gun.”
“It’s hot and good to go. Just release this safety here and fire.”
“What do I do when I get to the other side?”
“Hope your memory come back by then.”
* * *